By SI SPENCER, JULY 2017
A short series exploring the surrounds of London’s surviving Cab Shelters, established in 1875 to provide sober and secure resting places for London’s hansom cab drivers and still in use by cabbies today.
Part 2 – Embankment Place to Temple Place
The best way to cover this relatively short stretch is the long way round, weaving through the side streets and pathways of Victoria Embankment Gardens, up to the Strand and back down again. Gordon’s Wine Bar on Villiers Street is an excellent place to start, one of London’s truly unique gems.
A modest entrance to a building that was once home to both Samuel Pepys and Rudyard Kipling (though not at the same time obviously) gives nothing away about the network of cellars that lie. Allegedly these cellars were where Henry VIII’s wine supply was unloaded from the Thames and stored and the oenophile tradition still holds strong today with an almost fanatic zeal – Gordon’s was the first wine bar in London and to this day serves only wine and fortified wines alongside brilliantly unhealthy platters of cheeses and meats.
Some may come for its magnificent entranceway lined with fading clippings of ancient newsprint, some to enjoy the maze of rough-hewn rooms carved from the bedrock of London and of course everyone is there to pour down the vino. The real attraction of Gordon’s though is mid-afternoon people-watching between the lunchtime and evening office-worker stampede – if you’re an observer of your fellow travellers through life or just a nosey old git like me, Gordon’s is infamous as a bar for clandestine trysts between adulterous couples.
Fans of London trivia will know that the Savoy Hotel is famous for two things; being the only place in London where cars must drive on the right and Kaspar the wooden cat sculpture who has to accompany part of thirteen and be bought dinner. Far less well known is the then infamous case of the murder of Prince Ali Fahmy by his new bride Marguerite in 1923. Limitations of space and public decency prevent me from providing all the details here but if you like stories of deviant sexual practices, deceitful bisexual courtesans, overblown courtroom histrionics and rampant jingoism and islamophobia, google is your friend.
For those of you who think Simpsons-in-the-Strand at the Savoy is a little too upmarket, in keeping with the tradition of imbibing in the cellars of our superiors, I recommend the Coal Hole. Originally the site of the Savoy’s apparently vast coal cellar it’s one of the few actually authentic London boozers in the area. The menu has (IMHO sadly) had an upgrade to attempt to fit in with the metropolitan zeitgeist, but it’s still a proper pub with a decent pint.
Winding back through the side-streets and Embankment Gardens you’ll probably spot Cleopatra’s Needle but given its reputation for being cursed, it’s probably worth giving a wide berth. Originally carved in 1450 BC it was gifted to the British in 1819 as a thank you for Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile, but we were too mean to pay for it until 1877 where it nearly sank en route and had to be salvaged at great expense. The initial plan was to erect it in the Houses of Parliament, but canny or superstitious MPs wanted nothing to do it and so here it stands, unwanted in view of Waterloo Bridge.
The current Bridge was opened in 1942 and wartime labour shortages meant that the majority of the building crew were women, hence its nickname of the ‘Lady’s Bridge’ (though the charmingly sexist wags who run the guided tour boats will tell you that it earned its name because the Portland Stone makes it easier to clean).
It’s a beautiful structure, the setting for the iconic Kinks’ song ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and the 1940 classic ‘Waterloo Bridge’ (though that was the original bridge, natch) in which a doomed Vivien Leigh, believing her lover is killed in the trenches of WWI, descends into a life of poverty and despair. More infamously, in 1978 the bridge became contender for London’s weirdest crime scene when Georgi Markov was assassinated at a bus stop with an umbrella. A dissident novelist and playwright, Markov had fled his native Bulgaria after criticising the Soviet regime and was working for the BBC and Radio Free Europe while in exile. On his way to work, a still unknown assailant stabbed him lightly and seemingly accidentally in the thigh with his umbrella. In the best tradition of James Bond gadgetry, the tip of the umbrella contained a mechanism that injected a pellet of deadly ricin under his skin. Markov died four days later and his killer has never been found.A short walk past the bridge and you’ll find yourself at Temple.
Don’t go looking for an actual temple – Temple is one of the historic Inns of Court but don’t worry too much about that. The archaic history of the Inns of Court and the rivalry between them is almost as complex to explain to an outsider as the rules of cricket (and attempting that never ends well). Instead check out what’s on at 2 Temple Place, a stunning neo-gothic mansion housing a museum and gallery space whose exhibitions are always well worth seeing.